Agriculture, sans conscience

While politicians are at loggerheads to retain power, foreign opportunists happily mop up our resources depriving millions of their livelihoods. When the winners emerge – whichever political party or coalition it may be – one can only hope they will have acquired the sensitivities, and indeed the patriotism, for overcoming these almost insurmountable new problems they have mired us in.
Too many politicians and planners are ignorant of, or indifferent towards the environment. Many still believe environmental care is a mere ideal, such as a pretty landscape, not a harsh economic reality when misused. They have yet to learn that our country’s resources, upon which the economy is dependent, are finite. They understand even less about the double-edged sword that is modern technology, destroying millions while making fortunes for a few.
The standard modus operandi to governance is claiming a ‘mandate’ for selling off public resources to private investors, making a tidy sum for themselves in the bargain. They’re not worried about our future because they won’t be hanging around to witness the devastation: they and their progeny will be long gone to foreign shores where they’ll have shipped ill-begotten wealth. So we have to do the worrying for ourselves.
Human survival and economic activities are entirely dependent on the earth’s biological resources. The plundering of the naturally-rich South countries during 500 years of colonization brought the realization that the scale of exploitation was simply not sustainable without decimating human and other life forms. Consequently, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) took an initiative in 1988 which culminated in 1992 with what is known as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). By mid-1993, it was signed by 168 countries and came into force at the year’s end. In the meantime, the assault on nature – both on species and eco-systems — continued unabated, mainly by corporations.
With three-fourths of species having gone extinct worldwide, an unprecedented new threat came up, so that an additional agreement had to be created. The new threat was LMOs, or ‘living modified organisms’ — the term used by the Cartagena Protocol which means the same as ‘genetically modified organisms’.
The need for the Protocol as a vital subsidiary to the CBD in 2000, arose with the emergence of genetic engineering and its results – genetically-modified organisms GMOs. It was also signed by 168 governments, coming into force in 1993.
Mobilised by the international community including Greenpeace, it was the first international agreement designed to regulate movements of GMOs, by placing precaution at the core of all decision-making. In other words, countries have the right to ban or restrict the import or use of GMOs when there is a lack of scientific knowledge or consensus regarding their safety. This holds true in Pakistan. Argentina, Canada, and the US, together produce some 90 percent of GM crops in the world — and therefore have not ratified the Protocol. The US, the birthplace of GMOs and the global GMO centre, is especially going whole hog, no holds barred, to undermine the Protocol.
Which begs the question: if by our government’s own admission, 85 percent of Pakistan’s cotton fields are already covered with Bt cotton without being officially imported, with whose leave did they do it? And why has Monsanto been sitting in Pakistan for 13 years showing no agricultural ‘activities’ to justify their presence?
They can, of course, afford to blow money. After all, it’s one of a handful of agrochemical and GM seed corporations that dominate around 80 percent of the global market simply collecting on recurring poisons and toxic seeds. But there still has to be more reason for showing such extraordinary patience.
Speculations abound. The most common, previously heard in India also, is to wait around until a sizeable area gets ‘somehow’ contaminated with GM. About 20 percent of captured acreage is deemed sufficient to eventually contaminate the rest at which point it may be impossible to regulate, with the damage having gone too far. At this point, multinationals with their huge advertising and marketing and ‘persuasion’ money, move in for the kill that eliminates all non-GM competition, enabling a complete takeover of a country’s agriculture. In Pakistan, it seems further qualified by years of charades of crop trials and monitoring and evaluation by non-existent technical personnel, involving a whole range of ‘local’ Bt varieties.
Whether Bt cottonseeds are smuggled from abroad – very easily through our porous borders on all sides – or other rumoured means, the fact remains that Pakistan’s own government’s agricultural agencies are directly responsible for the contamination. Although there was no Biosafety Law in existence whatsoever in 2010, the National Institute for Biotechnology (NIBGE) and Genetic Engineering (PAEC) sold 40,000 kg of basic Bt cotton from PAEC-related facilities to 10 private companies for sale and multiplication.
Despite the fact that the National Biosafety Committee and Punjab Seed Council repeatedly downgraded the trial Bt crops for low toxin, poor quality and other factors, their approval was still bulldozed through! As many as 72 Bt cotton varieties were reported by the media to have proliferated in the Punjab and Sindh. But NBC never even created the capacity to check. There was never an enquiry, and no heads ever rolled. Were things going according to somebody else’s plans?
The Cartagena Biosafety Protocol clearly spells out that products from new technologies have to be based on the precautionary principle — that if any action or policy may hold the risk of causing harm to the environment or to the public, one should lean on the side of caution and desist. But here, people in high places seldom obey orders.
Nevertheless, the Protocol automatically applies at the domestic level as well. Yet, two decades after having signed the protocol, Pakistan has not bothered to frame it for either the federal or provincial level.
This does explain the total lack of concern of agricultural officialdom towards GM cotton contamination in Pakistan and equal lack of enthusiasm for proven traditional – otherwise termed ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ – farming methods for reviving chemical and monoculture-damaged soils and mitigating the vagaries of ‘climate change.’ The focus of all agricultural institutions in Pakistan, or at least of the head honchos of most of the 60 such, seem to have zeroed onto a solitary goal – GMOs, by hook or by crook. (Probably the latter.)
It would be safe for their future to remember that the Cartagena Protocol recognises the sovereign rights of states over their biological resources and knowledge systems. The protocol also requires signatory governments to protect and promote the rights of communities, farmers and indigenous peoples with respect to their biological resources and knowledge systems. We have never been so lucky. Successive governments have consistently deprived us. They believe foreign investors can run our agriculture, our economy, and our lives, better than we can.
Maybe our luck will turn this time because environmental threats are now upon us economically and socially. That makes it a political issue that warring parties might just be forced to take up.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights

and advocacy group.

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